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A career watershed?

Women have come a long way, baby. However, even the strongest of us may still need to work on keeping our emotions in check. Here’s how and why, writes Elyse Glickman

 

WHEN A WOMAN CRIES in public, even against her best intentions to remain cool under pressure, it unleashes negative stereotypes—even in 2011. However, when powerful men such as House Speaker John Boehner, Glenn Beck and championship-winning athletes unleash the waterworks, it makes news.
   In fact, these incidents, plus well publicized research conducted by Kim Elsbach, a professor of management at the University of California–Davis published in Forbes last February has tapped into, well, a wellspring of interest on the subject of crying. While prominent women like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi often get criticized for their ‘unfeminine’ emotional restraint, crying on the job is just shy of being a career killer in many professional settings.
   As a generation of women ascends the success ladder, one part of the price involves our going against our natural tendency to show emotion even when things are at their worst. However, nature often gets the best of many of us.
   Kelly Cutrone is one of America’s most visible examples of strength under pressure. On the heels of building People’s Revolution, one of the most influential lifestyle public relations firms in the country (whose alumni include Philadelphia-bred Eileen Colavita and her respected Hollywood PR agency, Spin Shoppe, as well as bi-coastal US fashion & beauty firm Kravetz PR, among many others), Cutrone—through a decidedly non-sugar-coated approach has become a role model for women interested in making it in PR and other cut-throat glamour professions.
   Her mindset has been channelled into New York Times best seller If You Have to Cry, Go Outside—and Other Things Your Mother Never Told You (paperback, US$8·57 at Amazon.com). One of her sure-fire remedies for preventing on-the-job outbursts revolves building your strength from the inside out, with chapters on ‘finding your tribe’ (‘like-minded souls who make your heart sing’), transforming a setback into a creative or financial breakthrough, accepting that there is no such thing as perfection, creating a personal brand, and how you have to ‘fake it to make it’ sometimes.
   ‘Though other topics [about succeeding in business] are covered in the book, I realized I made a very big statement about how I feel about crying at work with the title of my book,’ Cutrone admits. ‘Even if you have sensitivities and somebody or something has pushed your buttons, the office and the public space is not the place to let it all hang out and be over-emotional. If you think about it, [the backlash from] crying adds to the burden of the situation you are already facing. Ultimately, the solution is simple—take it outside—not the cubicle or any other public space.’
   Cutrone will also admit she had her moments of emotion, though she treats those mistakes as teaching tools for herself and her own employees, intended to make all involved stronger and less inclined to do it again. Looking back over her own career, she acknowledges some of her own non-professional responses to things early on, or witnessed her co-workers making their own emotional lapses of judgement.
   ‘After a while, we cannot go on feeling sorry for ourselves or crying, or venting about how we are under-appreciated or abused,’ asserts Cutrone. ‘We all have to accept at some point that the worlds of business and entrepreneurship are not always going to be politically correct. The focus has to be the well-being of your business. There is also the fact that everybody you work with—even the nicest people—are in it for themselves. If you have five co-workers, and you let your guard down before promotion time, chances are (somebody) will use that as a weakness against you. From the boss’s standpoint, if you have five employees who are all performing well and reaching those results, guess what comes into play next? Manners, dress code and professionalism. If you show too much emotion in any direction, it is overload for a manager making those decisions.’
   Cutrone likens most corporate environments to the television show Survivor, with different alliances playing against each other.
   ‘One misstep and it could cost you clients, thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and ultimately your job,’ she continues. ‘You don’t see guys crying on the field in the Super Bowl when concentration and being on top of one’s game matters, only tears of gratitude when they have taken the trophy. Corporations really are like families. If you are in a managerial or leadership role, your people look to you to set the tone and standards for everything the office does collectively. You want your staff to feel empowered in terms of what they can accomplish on their own and as a team.’
   Ellen Pober Rittberg, parenting expert, attorney and author of 35 Things Your Teen Won’t Tell You, So I Will, had been put through her paces on the job, and has much to say on the subject. ‘The times they are a-changing, but nevertheless sometimes some women need a little help in this area to train themselves not to cry,’ Pober Rittberg points out, through two “watershed” experiences in her earlier life.
   ‘When I worked for [one] newspaper, I was informed when I started by a co-worker that one woman editor prided herself on making each and every female employee cry. I observed she blindside the unwitting woman with an unfair and extreme statement. I resolved not to allow her to make me cry, and she didn’t. However, she said something so horrible, that I fast realized that lady’s room served another purpose. When I was a new attorney 20 years ago, I burst out silently crying when a custodial grandmother said something so extreme, it shocked me. Fortunately, the only people in the room were the judge and court officers. From that time forward, I resolved not to ever allow myself to cry in public at work.’
   Though Pober Rittberg works many cases that strike the heart and soul deeply, she insists keeping emotions in check in the workplace is the only way one can hold on to her dignity, self-respect and the respect of others.
   Elsbach’s three-year study about crying in the workplace reinforces Pober Rittberg’s advice. According to her research, women are much more likely to cry at work because of the way they are socialized as girls—in contrast to the way boys are conditioned not to cry. Unfortunately, the nature and nurture that shape women, even with strong female role models, sends them to the adult career playing field with a clear disadvantage. One slip (especially in a public meeting or during an office’s most stressful work season), and your tears will be rewarded with disdain and harsh consequences.
   Anne Kreamer, meanwhile, sheds more insight on the subject in her book, It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace (US$15·51 at Amazon.com). It documents that 41 per cent of women surveyed said they have cried at work, compared with just 9 per cent of men. All of those same women expressed they wish they hadn’t. Additionally, because women are often embarrassed when the tears come, they are also the most critical of workplace weeping by other women.
   New York-based executive recruiter Patricia H. Lenkov also acknowledges that the way young women are raised puts them at a disadvantage. However, she believes the way to triumph over the nature and nurture is to understand the unwritten rules of business conduct. While they don’t have to shut out their emotions, there are appropriate times and places to express them.
   ‘While it is healthy to cry at home or go to the gym and get it all out, the expectation is that when you step through the door into the workplace, you are there to be a professional and keep it together,’ says Lenkov. ‘When you cry at work, you make people uncomfortable and their perception of your being a leader and making good judgements is compromised. You cross a barrier that should not be crossed because people cannot deal with it from the other side. They are not trained to comfort you, as handling other people’s crying is not part of most job descriptions.’
   Lenkov also points out, as do many books on the subject that there are all sorts of anti-stress techniques that we can use to put our best face forward at work—the one without the tears. These include such common sense measures as taking a short walk, closing the office door for a moment of privacy and asking the person on the other end of a conflict if the topic can be discussed at a later time. However, coaching or counselling is emerging as one of the best, most customizable options.
   ‘The field of counselling has exploded in the last five years or so, and you have to be careful and shop around for the right coach,’ notes Lenkov. However, there are professionals with advanced credentials and Ph.D.s who are expert in developing personally specific strategies to cope with stresses unique to one’s job and workplace. It is a great option that wasn’t around 20 or even 10 years ago. We can always use better tools for our workplace “toolkits” to adapt to new pressures as they arise.’
   While Sharon Melnick, Ph.D., a national expert on success under stress in the workplace, acknowledges the importance of retraining ourselves to be our best at work, she points out the physiological reality that a women's tendency to cry is an adaptive response that her body is set up to do in order to process emotions and move past them. Men, meanwhile, have a low level of the hormone that sets women up to have that response, which is why some experts say women are ‘buffered’ from stress.
   Even with our bodies calling the shots, Melnick adds any person who wants to be a leader must be able think clearly and decisively in situations and not take things personally.
   Advises Melnick, ‘Two key skills [are] maintaining objectivity and not reading into situations for their personal meaning. Furthermore, both men and women can benefit from a three-part breathing exercise that balances the nervous system and makes businesspeople less reactive and more steady in the face of stress. Here, you breathe in through your nose, hold, and exhale all for equal counts. Doing this ensures you have the focus to work at your highest capacity when you have a high volume of work, while refuelling your energy, accessing your creative thinking and intuition, and maintaining poise.’ •

 


Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.

 

 



Kelly Cutrone and her book, If You Have to Cry, Go Outside.


Ellen Pober Rittberg’s 35 Things Your Teen Won’t Tell You, So I Will.


Anne Kreamer’s It’s Always Personal.


Executive recruiter, Patricia H. Lenkov



New York-based executive recruiter Patricia H. Lenkov also acknowledges that the way young women are raised puts them at a disadvantage. However, she believes the way to triumph over the nature and nurture is to understand the unwritten rules of business conduct. While they don’t have to shut out their emotions, there are appropriate times and places to express them




Dr Sharon Melnick, workplace stress expert

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